Protect Residents, Avoid Liability with Routine Balcony Inspections
While balconies are a welcome feature that can add to the appeal of units at your site, they do require extra attention to be sure they are maintained in a safe condition and to limit your liability if an accident occurs. If any of your units have balconies, your maintenance staff should inspect them thoroughly and regularly for problems such as defective railings or unsafe access.
HUD does not provide guidance for inspecting balconies, but site owners can be assessed deficiencies at inspection time for hazards noted on balconies, according to Kay McIlmoil, CPM, a HUD REAC (Real Estate Assessment Center) certified inspector. For instance, HUD views loose or damaged balcony railings to be a serious health and safety violation. “REAC inspections include balconies, as well as patios and porches, and deficiencies are noted,” McIlmoil explains. “This includes common area balconies, patios, and porches, in addition to those at the units.”
You may think you don't need to be concerned about inspecting balconies because you can't be held liable for defects about which you had no knowledge. But claiming that you didn't know isn't a defense that's likely to hold up in court, liability experts say. The courts are likely to decide that you should have been aware of the defect and that inspecting for such issues is the responsibility of a site owner or manager.
Six Inspection Tips
Balcony railings are the most common problem area. You have to do more than a quick visual inspection to be sure there are no hazards. Here are several railing inspection tips the Insider has gathered from site maintenance staff:
Start where the railing is attached to the outside wall of the building. Make sure the bolts that attached the railing to the wall are solid and show no signs of rust.
Check the attachment hardware between the railing and the floor of the balcony.
Give the railing a good, hard shake. A railing in proper, safe condition should not move or give at all when it's shaken.
Examine railings for rust, if they are wrought iron. Check the entire length of the railing, paying particular attention to places where the iron has been welded, such as where it meets spacers or the wall.
Examine railings for rot, if they are wooden. Check the complete railing, end to end. Most often, wooden railings are vulnerable to rotting in places where water can seep into the wood. Look closely where nails or screws penetrate the wood.
Know there could be “hidden” defects, problems caused by deterioration from the inside. To check for hidden problems in wooden railings, knock on them. A hollow sound could mean the wood is weak inside. The wood may have rotten spots, or termites or carpenter ants could have invaded the railing. To check iron railing for hidden weaknesses, try to bend or squeeze the metal. If it gives even slightly, it has become weakened and should be replaced.
Maintenance professionals at Gene B. Glick Co., a property management firm based in Indiana, check their units’ balconies twice a year. Once a year is the bare minimum; more often is recommended if balconies are heavily used. Spring is considered to be a good time to inspect balconies, because winter weather tends to be hard on railings and other exterior features. So inspecting as soon as the roughest winter weather is over in your area is a good idea.
What REAC Inspectors Look For
McIlmoil says REAC inspectors often find that site managers and owners are not aware of the details of REAC deficiencies. She shares several related to balconies, patios and porches.
Unit Patio/Porch/Balcony. Damage to a concrete slab porch or entry stoop attached to a unit is recorded in Site, Walkways/Steps. “There is a Level 2 deficiency if there are cracks greater than three-fourths of an inch, hinging/tilting, or missing section(s) that affect traffic ability over more than 5 percent of the property's walkways/steps,” she explains. “The 5 percent is cumulative and encompasses all of the walkways/steps on the entire property.”
Spalling on a concrete slab porch or entry stoop attached to a unit also is recorded in Site, Walkways/Steps. Spalling results from water entering brick, concrete, or natural stone, and forcing the surface to peel, pop off, or flake off. If not taken care of, spalling eventually can cause a structure to crumble or destruct completely.
“This is a Level 1 deficiency if more than 5 percent of the walkway/steps have small areas of spalling—4 inches by 4 inches or less,” she says. “It is a Level 2 deficiency if more than 5 percent of the walkway/steps have large areas of spalling—larger than 4 inches by 4 inches—and this affects traffic ability. Again, the 5 percent is cumulative and encompasses all of the walkways/steps on the entire property.”
Damage to balusters and side rails on a patio/porch/balcony attached to a unit is recorded in Unit Patio/Porch/Balcony. “There is a Level 3 deficiency if the baluster or side rails enclosing this area are loose, damaged, or missing, limiting the safe use of this area,” she notes.
Common Area Patio/Porch/Balcony. Deficiencies for a Common Area Patio/Porch/Balcony include balusters, hand railings, side railings, stairs, ceilings, doors, floors, walls, windows, electrical, lighting, and outlets/switches/cover plates.
Act Promptly if Repairs Are Needed
If you find any problems during your inspection of balconies and railings, you should do two things. First, immediately notify the resident whose balcony is unsafe not to use the balcony until you make repairs. Put this notification in writing, keeping a copy for your records. Then, make the needed repairs as quickly as possible. The longer the repairs go undone, the more likely it is that someone will try to use the balcony, raising the odds for an accident and possible injuries.
Resist the urge to do a temporary fix, liability experts advise. A bracket might steady a wobbly railing in the short term, but it is not a permanent repair or a safe solution. You need to replace or repair mountings or even the entire railing, if necessary.
Kay McIlmoil, CPM: REAC, FEMA, and FHA Certified Inspector, IMC Inspections, 4111 Lakeview Pkwy., Locust Grove, VA 22508; (540) 846-7677; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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